Higher Education Policy and Practice

Institutional Turn-around Strategy Principles

Would you consider taking on the presidency of an institution in need of a turn-around?

If so, in this blog I’ll introduce several Turn-around Principles you’ll need to keep in mind before taking on the challenge.  Consider the following scenario (which is not derived from the experience of any one particular institution):

You have been selected to interview for the presidency of College X.  You have determined, based on the information you have obtained, that you would like to work at the college.  You are confident you have the skills and experience to deliver a successful turn-around strategy.  Finally, you believe you have sufficient due diligence background information to prepare fully for the interview process.

Principle #1:  Make sure the board recognizes the need for a turn-around and is prepared to champion and support your efforts.

Even if we assume the board recognizes that a turn-around is needed, it does not necessarily mean that they are willing to do the heavy lifting required for a successful turn-around.  Here are a few comments that have been expressed over the past several years by board members:


  • “We (the board) believe we can grow out of our current financial problem.” This came from a college that needed at least 500 new students in the next fiscal year, a 50% increase in enrollment, to solve their financial problem.
  • “We can take a gradual approach to solving our enrollment and financial difficulties.” In this case, if the college phased in the turn-around over several years, the short-term losses would have required even more new students to overcome the accumulated deficit, which was growing at 20% annually. This belief by the board that the college could grow out of fiscal problems is a commonly held axiom. However, it assumes that they are not competing with other colleges for more students.
  • “We should increase tuition discounting to attract more students.” The problem with this strategy is that the tuition discounts are simply a recognition that the college’s current price is out of equilibrium with supply (the college’s need to enroll new students) and demand (student willingness to enroll). Also, these discounts are coming at a time when many other colleges are also finding that their potential student pool is shrinking.


Simply setting higher enrollment goals and offering larger tuition discounts does not guarantee more students will enroll.

You might suggest that maybe the college could combine an enrollment growth and expense cutting as a turn-around strategy.  However, you may then hear that expense cutting strategies can be stymied by the faculty because (the board) granted the faculty the authority to approve all expenditures.


In other words, an interview at a college in need of a turn-around strategy does not mean that it is ready for the angst of developing and implementing a turn-around plan.

Principle #2:  You probably need more information than you realize.

Presidential candidates at turn-around colleges need the following information, at a minimum, to be fully prepared for the interview:

  • Institutional culture, including and relations or conflicts within the institution, with its alumni, and with key external constituencies
  • Financial condition: 3 years of audited financial reports, current budget
  • Enrollment: 3-5 years enrollment history by program
  • Status of accreditation
  • Any recent or pending law suits
  • Relationship with banks
  • Position of the local press regarding the institution

Principle #3:  Before the employment contract is signed, be explicit with the board about your turn-around plan and your expectations for its support.

Presidential candidates at turn-around colleges should come to agreement with the board on the following items:


  • Explicit acknowledgement that the board understands and accepts the implications of the strategies proposed by the president during contract negotiations.
  • Contingency plans in response to known potential fall-out from key decisions.
  • Willingness of the board, its chair, and the executive committee to publicly meet with constituencies and state their support for the president as strategies are being implemented.
  • What happens if a trustee chooses to meet with the faculty or other critical constituencies without the president and if those meetings have the potential of undermining the president?
  • What happens if a trustee expresses to key constituencies lack of support for board approved strategies and plans?
  • Conditions under which the president would leave the institution beyond the normal moral turpitude, incompetence, or insubordination.


By all accounts, being a college president is becoming more difficult every year.  And more colleges than ever are facing the daunting prospects of a brutally competitive market place and a fight for sustainability.  Of course, successfully overcoming these challenges can make the job truly rewarding.  If you are up for the challenge, make sure you prepared.

About the Author: Mike Townsley, Ph.D.

Michael Townsley has more than 20 years of experience in academic services, financial systems, budgets, marketing strategy, payment plans, IT administration, ancillary operations, and site management. Mike is Senior Consultant with Stevens Strategy and former President of Pennsylvania Institute of Technology. During his 20 years … (Read More)

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